Bibliotherapy: Reading through depression
Posted Monday 23 April 2012
Chris, a nursing specialist, writes about how his love of reading fiction has helped him through periods of anxiety and depression.
It’s World Book Night tonight. Last year I dashed round the hospital I work in, giving out free books to harassed shift workers on a Saturday night. This year I’ve been lucky enough to be selected again and will give out fiction to local cinema goers.
I love the idea of promoting reading. For me fiction has been a life line for my mental health from an early age. I come from a family of voracious readers and we were always encouraged to read. Often the four of us would be in disparate corners of the house immersed in books and the house was always full of novels.
For me, fiction provided an insight into the minds of others and it was a revelation for me that I wasn’t the only one suffering from anguish and distress. As a child, I tended to be apprehensive and worried, experiencing anxiety at things others considered common place or mundane. As I grew older my anxiety increased and I graduated to being a messed up teenager with a penchant for sleeping, occasional substance abuse and prolonged dark moods. I first experienced a bout of depression in my mid teens and reading was my coping mechanism.
I started to experience searing anxiety and disturbing thoughts about how bleak life felt. I withdrew, lost my confidence and couldn’t socialise as I usually had. The only time I felt I could lose myself was in a good book. I’d read compulsively, devouring book after book, to distract myself from feeling so worried and negative. I’d emerge every so often to go to the library and get more books. It felt like reading helped me through by allowing me to relax and be somewhere else.
An added dimension for me was that reading fiction allowed me to see inside other people’s heads. A well written novel conveys the world from a different perspective. It’s like seeing through the eyes of another person. What I found (and still often find) is that this taught me that my experiences weren’t uncommon.
I gained comfort from reading about other people’s emotional struggles. I discovered that fictional characters can experience random anxiety which rips them apart, searing depression which puts them under the covers in their beds and mental unease which they struggle through. It felt inclusive for me to discover that maybe my experiences were more universal than I first thought. I also found that, often, books which depict depression or anxiety well are written by those who’ve experienced it themselves too.
I went on to suffer more severe depression and anxiety in later life and at times lost the ability to experience much pleasure. If I lose interest in reading that’s always a bad sign for me and an indicator that I need to stop and scrutinise what’s going on and think about relapse prevention. During bleak episodes of depression I would see a return to reading as a sign things were looking up.
I’m a keen advocator of reading fiction, whether it’s brutally real or totally escapist. It definitely has a therapeutic effect for me.
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